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Rio Rancho Public Schools may appeal ruling on charter school

After four years in court, Rio Rancho Public Schools lost a lawsuit it filed to stop a top-performing charter school from opening at University of New Mexico West, but the district superintendent said she hopes to appeal.

RRPS sued the New Mexico Public Education Department in Santa Fe’s 1st Judicial District Court over a waiver PED granted to the Albuquerque Institute for Mathematics and Science, a charter school recently ranked first in New Mexico and 43rd in the nation by The Washington Post.

The waiver gave AIMS permission to open a second location at UNM West without applying for a new charter.

AIMS, which has about 350 students grades six through 12, is housed on the UNM South Campus and chartered by the state Public Education Commission.

RRPS insisted the school needed the new charter because the second location would have been in Rio Rancho, a different district.

AIMS director Kathy Sandoval said the objection is really “all about turf.”

“Everyone in Rio Rancho was welcoming except the school district,” she said.

The commission and Education Secretary Hanna Skandera also were named in the lawsuit, though commissioners actually voted against the waiver, saying AIMS needed to show that Albuquerque Public Schools also supported the expansion.

On May 2, District Court Judge David Thomson ruled that PED had not overstepped its authority by granting the waiver.

Gary Tripp, RRPS chief of staff and engagement, said Superintendent Sue Cleveland wants to keep up the fight. She will ask the Board of Education to vote on an appeal in June, he said.

Tripp stressed that administrators want charter schools to follow proper procedure and that they have nothing against AIMS specifically.

“I don’t think this is a turf war,” he said. “There is a process that is clearly defined. We want to make sure the process is followed.”

Rio Rancho’s ASK Academy charter school adhered to the procedure and has a good relationship with RRPS, Tripp said.

Sandoval was aghast that Cleveland would push for an appeal.

“Here you have a school district that says it has no money, and yet they are going to spend money on this,” she said.

Sandoval had planned to talk to UNM regents, who previously approved the expansion, about revisiting the options and possibly trying to open the new location this fall.

Originally, the Rio Rancho AIMS site was slated to launch in fall 2014 with 40 sixth-graders, adding a new grade each year until the school enrolled about 350 students.

UNM West had given AIMS two classrooms, and Sandoval said some of her teachers had moved to Rio Rancho.

“Oh, man, did I feel terrible,” Sandoval said. “Four years later, we were still being told we couldn’t go out there.”

When Thomson ruled last week, parents started to call to see if the Rio Rancho location would be opening soon, she said. Currently, AIMS has 413 students waiting for a spot.

“All we are interested in is offering this to more people,” Sandoval said. “We have such a huge wait list as it is right now, it would be criminal if we didn’t.”

In an emailed statement, Skandera said high performers like AIMS should be rewarded, not punished.

“This ruling sends a strong message to our public and private schools that there’s nothing more important than putting our students first,” she said.